By Robert Tapfumaneyi
SITABILE Dewa, a human rights activist was last week acquitted at the Harare Magistrate Courts where she was facing subversion charges.
She and six other rights defenders were arrested at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare in May 2019, on their return from a peaceful resistance workshop in the Maldives.
Since her arrest, detention for weeks in remand prison, Dewa (35) affectionately known as Star, says her life has never been the same.
“The State wasted 15 months my life,” she said.
She is also demanding a public apology from controversial politician Linda Masarira and former acting Herald Editor, Tichaona Zindoga who used “derogatory statements” buttressing false State charges that they were plotting to overthrow President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.
While for many university graduation days will forever be cherished with sweet memories, the case is different as Dewa could not graduate at Africa University for her second Master’s Degree in Peace, Human Rights and Governance in June 2019 as she was a guest of the State at the female section of Chikurubi Security Maximum Prison.
The State alleged the seven human rights activists participated in a meeting and underwent training organised by a Serbian non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Centre for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aimed at subverting a constitutionally elected government.
The State alleged that they were taught the basics of counter-intelligence and acts of terrorism.
After 15 months in and out of the court, the State finally withdrew the charges and will proceed through summons.
NewZimbabwe.com Senior Reporter Robert Tapfumaneyi (RT) spoke to Stabile Dewa (SD) on her ordeal from the day she was handcuffed at RGM International Airport to Harare Central police station, prison, and High Court for bail.
RT: Let’s start from the beginning, in May 2019 you went to the Maldives, what was the purpose of that trip?
SD: I travelled to the Maldives together with six other human rights defenders to attend a Human Rights and Peace Building training programme organised by an institution called Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies.
RT: You were arrested on your arrival, tell us what the police said they were arresting you for, what crime had you committed?
SD: The drama started when we were two days into our workshop when the State mouthpiece, The Herald ran a false story written by Tichaona Zindoga that seven civil society leaders had travelled to the Maldives to receive training in insurgency and how to overthrow the Government of Zimbabwe. The Herald ran two more articles on the same issue before we came back from the 5-day training programme. Little did we know that the newspaper was setting the tone for our arrest. When we landed at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, we were arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the Government, treason a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
RT: Many human rights activists have complained that their rights are not respected once you are in the hands of the police, tell us your experience?
SD: At the airport, we were not arrested by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), even the police themselves did not know who had arrested us. The police were simply called to come and pick us at the airport and were instructed to charge us with treason. Beyond the charge, the police never got any other information nor evidence from those who arrested us. The burden was now on the police to prove why “they had arrested us”. That is why in court the investigating officer publicly testified that she had no evidence whatsoever linking us to the case but was only relying on extracting evidence from our gadgets – laptops and phones which we voluntarily handed over to them. We were denied access to our lawyers at first; we only managed to chat with them two hours after arrest.
RT: Take us through the interrogation by the police, did the police officers who interrogated you know what they were looking for or were just doing their job taking instructions from somewhere?
SD: I was interrogated by more than 12 State security details, which I learnt later on, where from the President’s Office, Military Intelligence and CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation). Even Zanu PF youths were part of the interrogation process. They all interrogated me at the same time as if they were in a competition to outclass each other, it was unbelievable and scary.
RT: You were charged with subverting a constitutional government under Article 22 (2) (a) (iii) of the Criminal Law Act, and transferred to the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. Did your lawyers explain to you the charge and how then did you feel since you knew you were innocent?
SD: Yes, the lawyers explained the charge to me. When the charge was read aloud by the magistrate in court I actually laughed to myself. I just did not believe it that the State can be so desperate and paranoid to the extent of pursuing such ridiculous charges. I did not panic though as I knew the trial would never see the light of day as there was no evidence whatsoever linking me to the fictitious charges cooked up by the Herald.
RT: In your own opinion, how did the State end up or come up with such a charge?
SD: I am still wondering how they ended up choosing such a crazy charge, I hope one-day Tichaona Zindoga will clear his conscience and confess why he would go at length to write outright lies and fiction against fellow Zimbabweans.
RT: When you appeared in court for the first time and you were denied bail, how did you feel?
SD: I knew with the gravity of the case, I would only get bail at the High Court, so I was prepared to spend time in prison.
RT: From then onward, while you were in remand prison, how did prison officers treat you? Were your rights being respected?
SD: There are two types of prison guards, professional ones and political appointees. The political appointee ones created many problems for me. They did not want any inmate to hang around with me arguing that I am an enemy of the State and will influence others to riot.
Sitabile Dewa during her time in remand prison
RT: Going back a bit, do you think the media both private and public covered your arrest in a professional manner without putting you on trial?
SD: Private media did a sterling job in making sure our story is heard. The State media condemned us before we even left the Maldives.
RT: Did you get enough support from colleagues within civil society?
SD: Yes, and I am so grateful for the support and solidarity they gave us. It made the 15-month ordeal bearable. Unfortunately, a few chose not to speak out for fear of upsetting the system.
RT: On 10 June 2019, the High Court of Harare granted bail under very strict conditions, how did that affect your social and professional life? What are some of the important basics that you failed to do?
SD: I was expected to report at my local police station daily for about a month. It was insane, and it was as if I was still in prison. I could not leave Harare let alone the country as they had confiscated my passport. Sadly, I missed my graduation ceremony for my second master’s degree while I was in prison.
RT: At one point you wanted to get your passport back from the police and they said they do not have the record of your passport, tell us more about this experience?
SD: Our passports were confiscated at the airport upon arrest. When I tried to get it back, the police at Harare Central Police Station where I was detained simply told me that they were not the ones who arrested me so they did not know who took my passport just like that! At one time I tried to seek audience with the Minister for Justice Hon. Ziyambi Ziyambi on the issue, but he simply dismissed me.
RT: From your own assessment do you think the police, when dealing with human rights defenders’ cases, act professionally?
SD: They act on instructions from above. If they are told to beat, they beat that is how they operate.
RT: Do you think the police officers are aware of some of the responsibilities of some NGOs operating in the country or they treat civil society organisations based from what they hear from politicians?
SD: The police fully know the duties and responsibilities of civil society but the problem like I said earlier, they work on instructions from above.
RT: 15 months, appearing in court more than 5 times, when the State withdrew the charges and said they will proceed by way of summons, how did you feel?
SD: Relieved and upset at the same time. They wasted 15 months of my life!
RT: Now that you are at ‘least’ free, what next for Sitabile?
SD: I will continue fighting for women’s empowerment and gender equality in Zimbabwe. I will definitely sue the government, the Herald, police, Linda Masarira and Tichaona Zindoga in his personal capacity for the pain, agony, suffering and defamation of character.